As promised last week, we’re going to start taking a deeper look into some small business case studies of social media to illustrate how sound strategy, an understanding of the social web and not a whole lot of investment can make measurable differences for regular, old brick and mortar places down the block. This week, we head north of the border to learn more about Martell Home Builders in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
The first thing that hits you about Martell is their URL — http://www.themartellexperience.com. And, that, in essence, captures what Martell is about. Hiring them to build your house gives you an experience. Watch this:
I’ve never had a house built but have heard horror stories of project being tens of thousands of dollars over budget, months and months behind schedule and problem after problem with the contractor, permits and more. What defines Martell’s unique selling proposition is what Pierre Martell alluded to in the video: Transparency. You’re going to know where he is at all times. You’re going to know what’s going on with your house at all times. And because Martell is seen and wants to see you as a person, going the extra mile to build and nurture the relationship beyond the project is important.
Notice that none of this has to do with social media. The strategy that dictates Martell’s business plan is not focused on social media, it’s holistic. Advertising, customer relations, vendor relations, public relations, website execution, social media and more are all by-products of the umbrella strategic approach to give the customer a home building and buying experience like no other. Whether intentional or not, Martell went through the strategic process of defining their audience, establishing their objectives, developing strategies to accomplish those objectives with the audience and then – after all that was established – decide the tools (on- and off-line) or mechanisms to execute the strategy.
So, how does social media play into Martell’s strategy? First, the customer-accessible project management tool, which appears to be BaseCamp based, is a powerful internal communications platform with all sorts of Web 2.0 bells and whistles. If it is, in fact, BaseCamp/GroupHub software, the communication in the project can be managed via email (easy for the client) and all the activity streams can be subscribed to via RSS. Pierre Martell understands the most important audience he has is the current customer base and makes sure they have access to their project status at all times.
The on-site website experience uses a number of social media tools and strategies which help make Martell Home Builders stand out among their competitors. The main content on the front page is dated, blog-type entries, giving them the opportunity to increase their relevance to search engines with fresh content. They admit not using it optimally to date, but the RSS feed is clearly offered and the opportunity to use a blog mechanism to drive website content is there. Their YouTube videos are positioned as website content, as is their latest entries on Twitter. They’ve even developed a posting and RSS feed of interesting articles from around the web as recommended reading, providing added value to site visitors. And they have images displayed of their homes in a SmugMug badge.
(They were kicked off Flickr for violating the terms of service. Not to get off on a tangent, but Flickr refuses to grow a spine when it comes to their non-commercial policy. They ban people who are reported by the community for being in violation of terms, but not everyone in violation of the terms. When I asked them recently how a business could use Flickr they said they couldn’t, but then the community decides so they won’t prevent you. This is a cop-out, spineless and unfair to all users. Large corporations have their entire photo catalog on Flickr and Martell’s pictures of homes in progress — not homes they are selling — gets banned? Give me a break. Grow a set Flickr. Either get rid of the term or enforce it across the board.)
The off-site social media elements stick to the strategy of communicating the Martell experience. Their Twitter stream is all about updating the customers and followers as to what is going on with current projects, company efforts, land purchases and more. The Facebook page gives a little different and more in-depth version of what’s happening with the company, including a recent wall post indicating a website refresh is coming and the content/blog will kick into a higher gear soon. The YouTube channel is peppered with trade show booth interviews done with many different personalities and experts on home building, decorating and design, which also stirs up quite a bit of differentiation attention at the trade show. What other home builder is going to invite folks by to be interviewed for their YouTube channel?
And did you catch the subtlety of the SmugMug images? They’re not pictures of homes they’re trying to sell. They’re picture of in-progress builds. It may seem innocuous, but in the social space it’s the difference in knowing what consumers will find acceptable and what they’ll find interesting. Martell is providing value beyond that of competitors by not being about sales first, at least in this regard.
But what is the ROI?
First, understand examining the ROI on Martell Homes’s efforts in social media has very little to do with their social media efforts. Martell gives us a perfect example of a business whose success stems from the uniqueness in their business model. The Martell Experience is what can be credited with the ROI. The social media tools only help create it. Are they getting business because of their participation in social media? Maybe. Are they creating an experience with social media tools as contributing components that bring in customers? Damn right.
Martell Homes sold 16 units in 2007. They are on schedule to sell 40 in 2008 and hope for 100 in 2009. And in a tough economy. But here’s where some social media payoff may come to play — 80 percent of their homes are sold direct to consumer with no real estate agents adding more to the bottom line for Martell. Would that be possible without an “Experience” online? Bet not.
What Pierre Martell has done is embraced the notion that to have meaningful connection and relationships with consumers in today’s world, you have to operate your business in a very human way. With a focus on transparency, openness and establishing a real and powerful relationship with his customers, he has bucked the trend and sold house after house after house. Is it having a blog or Twitter stream that has done it? No. But the fact he has become the human embodiment of strong social media philosophy in business has everything to do with Martell Home Builders’ success. The social media tools just compliment the top-down approach he has chosen for his business.
For more on Martell Home Builders, check out the experience.